Simon Whitfield wanted to go home. It was June 27, 2009, and he was stuck in an especially dingy and depressing Travelodge near the St. Louis airport. The 2000 Olympic triathlon champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist was scheduled to race at an ITU World Cup in just two days, held at the Hy-Vee triathlon festival in Des Moines, Iowa—a race that dangled a $200,000 prize for the winner. But Whitfield was close to talking himself into changing his plane ticket and flying home to Victoria, and just calling it a bust. His plan was to fly home, let his immune system bounce back, and restart the summer racing season. His racing hadn’t been going well, and he could only expect it to get worse.The previous weekend he had tried to race in Washington DC but his body would have none of it. It was as if the mixture of years of dragging his bike box around the world on the ITU World Cup circuit had finally tackled him from behind.
“I had just dropped out of the race in DC,” he recalls. “I missed my wife. My allergies were going crazy. And the Travelodge was just disgusting.”
He had almost given in to calling it a bust. Then a nagging thought came trickling in from the depths of Whitfield’s mind: If I could just finish in the top 15 at Hy-Vee, I could salvage the trip and maybe start getting back on track.
Whitfield made it to West Des Moines just in time for the race briefing given to the pros the night before the race. The prospect of finishing in the top 15 was not a given. Despite Whitfield’s incredible status in the sport of triathlon—inarguably one of the greatest triathletes of all time—the $1 million dollar prize purse offered at the Hy-Vee race drew a quality of racers that made it look like a world championship. Names like Javier Gomez of Spain, Australia’s Brad Kahlefeldt, American Hunter Kemper and New Zealand’s Kris Gemmell packed the field. Of particular note was the presence of Germany’s Jan Frodeno, the dark horse who had out-sprinted Whitfield out for the 2008 Olympic gold medal. Both Frodeno and Whitfield ran sub 31-minute 10K’s in Beijing.
In West Des Moines, the stands were filled to cheer on the international field. “I’d never felt worse during a race,” Whitfield says. It was halfway through the 10K run leg of the race when Whitfield’s mood brightened for the first time in days: He looked around and he was in the top seven. “If I can hang on and finish in the top 7, this will be great!” Whitfield thought. By the final laps of the race, a knot of six triathletes had formed and broken away. There was an increasing tension holding the group together in the hot, muggy weather. In my many years as a triathlon journalist, I knew I was watching one of the most exciting races ever held in the sport’s history.
Since the 1990s I had always admired those who dared to try and make it on the World Cup circuit. Although being on the world stage in the Olympics had brought them an occasional spotlight, the World Cup athletes have always been in a sort of banished, no-man’s land. This had nothing to do with them—it had to do with the political nature of a new sport trying to earn a spot on the Olympic slate. World Cup racing was different from most of triathlon in a number of ways. The pros don’t usually share the starting line with age-groupers, and the events are draft legal—two measures that despite the logic behind them, have created a divide for many in the age-group world. Some of the more vocal age-group triathletes showed little restraint when criticizing the new branch of draft-legal Olympic triathlon. The athletes and the politicians got lumped together somehow. Animosity flowed both ways. I was once able to sneak in to a post-race dinner after a World Cup in the late 1990s to hear then-ITU president Les McDonald speak. He went up to the podium and just started talking, as if picking up mid-sentence where he had left off the week before. It was a strange speech. Borderline performance art. I looked around at the athletes and noticed that their faces weren’t puzzled by any means. They were used to it.
In those few years before triathlon finally climbed aboard the Olympic slate in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Whitfield was one of those struggling just to survive while hoping for a shot to make his national team. I remember trying to figure out how the World Cup system worked, with ITU points being an essential currency in the qualifying process, which required the athletes to fly all over the planet seemingly all of the time. Because triathlon had not yet made it onto the Olympic’s schedule, the money that flowed from national federations could be little or none. Whitfield says that between 1996 and 2000, the total income he received in prize purse money was $2,000.
“We use to call it credit card racing,” Whitfield recalls fondly. Although he appreciates how Olympic triathlon took off and certainly he and others could eventually make a living at it, he misses some of the purity of his days as a journeyman triathlete. His journeyman days came to an abrupt end when they hung a gold medal around his neck in 2000. He would go on to represent Canada in four consecutive Olympic Games.
Ripping through laps in the Iowa humidity among the breakaway of six, Whitfield’s gloom had burned off like a morning fog. With 500 meters to go, the racers entered a zig-zagging chicane that preceded the final drag-strip blast to the finish line in front of grandstands filled with screaming fans, many of whom had competed in the age-group races held earlier that the morning. Queen’s “Another One Bite’s the Dust” regrettably blared through the sound system, but the racers didn’t seem to notice. With his hat on backwards, Gemmell looked to try and slingshot himself into the lead with the final twist of the chicane. But he noticed over his right shoulder that an invigorated Whitfield was pumping his arms. Whitfield slashed his way into the front, blowing puffs of air out of his cheeks as if sprinting in a 100-meter dash. Behind Whitfield was bedlam, the kind you see in the sprint-stage finishes at the Tour de France, with his competitors jostling for position. As Whitfield broke the tape, Frodeno went airborne, shooting sideways in a cartoon fashion, smashing to the blue carpet. Who would have thought: The Queen song had been an omen.
Whitfield took a few steps beyond the finish line and roared, leaving the wreckage behind him. He had not only beat the guy that had beat him out the year before for Olympic gold—exacting at least a taste of redemption—but he had gone a long way toward salvaging a trip he had come dangerously close to abandoning. I imagine $200,000 went a long way toward making him forget about his allergies.
I was standing in a “media zone” not far from the finish line. It indeed was one of the most exciting races I had ever seen. I’d been a triathlete since 1982 and a triathlon editor since 1996. So many of the races I had covered had the curse of being more like what Ironman creator John Collins first told ABC Sports when they wanted to cover his race for Wide World of Sports. “It’s about as exciting as watching grass grow,” Collins had told them. Obviously, that wasn’t always the case. There was the Julie Moss finish-line crawl, which fueled a huge growth spurt in triathlon after its ABC telecast. And of course, the 1989 Iron War between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, a battle that seemed to be the inspiration for an entire generation of top pros as well as enthused age-groupers.
But more often than not, it’s a lot more exciting to be in a triathlon than to be standing around the transition area waiting to see something happen. It may be more exciting than watching grass grow, but for a lot of supportive members of a triathlete’s entourage hoping for a glimpse of their athlete during a race that might be taking more than 12 hours, many do end up sitting on a patch of ground, waiting, and inevitably staring at the grass.
Watching Whitfield win that remarkable race in Iowa, I found myself wishing I’d been more aggressive about covering World Cup racing in my years as an editor. Be it the draft-legal nature, or the astounding capacities of the athletes, it was an incredible race to watch.
But in the aftermath of the Hy-Vee race, I began to understand the frustration that had long been eating away at Whitfield through the course of his career. Although the stands were full of spectators, few seemed to know who any of the athletes were. In races packed with Olympic athletes (not to mention medal winners), no one really knew who was who, except for the race announcers (and maybe a triathlon journalist or two). The ITU had failed to promote the great stories of at least some of those athletes who were dedicating their lives to multisport. Even if almost all the Ironman races lacked sprint-kick finishes, the stories of the greats made it compelling theater anyway. Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser, Chris McCormack—names that invigorated the sport despite the fact that a winning margin might be measured in miles.
“The WTC had done a good job of telling stories,” Whitfield says. “The ITU has done a terrible job.”
Whitfield is out to do something about this. He has retired from professional racing and is now heading up a new sports entertainment group in Canada aimed at developing a new grassroots multisport series that makes storytelling central to promotion. It’s still a secret project, but Whitfield says the goals are to break down some of the barriers that have kept a lid on the kind of stories that first inspired him to become a triathlete.
Stories like the one of the gold medalist flipping channels in a run down Travelodge, wondering what he was going to do with his weekend.